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Friday, May 24, 2024

Questions and Answers About Offshore Wind

The debate continues

By Frank Carini / ecoRI News columnist

Not all of these projects are still in play
Two days after ecoRI News published an opinion piece about offshore wind, the staff received an email from a concerned Rhode Island reader about this particular form of renewable energy and our coverage of it.

The May 1 email features a list of questions and statements I thought needed to be answered and addressed. What follows is just that, with reader questions/statements in bold.

I must say I am very confused by your stance in promoting it and also in the process, speaking badly about those of us who oppose it.

While this issue has deeply divided people, ecoRI News reporting has taken no sides. “We strive to write about the issue fairly and without bias,” editor Bonnie Phillips told the reader when she responded to the email. She noted any comments or opinions expressed in stories about offshore wind are from sources interviewed and not from ecoRI News reporters.

Also, reader comments don’t reflect the opinions of ecoRI News.

In one of my columns — which also don’t reflect the opinions of ecoRI News — about offshore wind, I did call some opponents “gadflies” and referred to them collectively as a “mob.” I’ve been called far worse, by family members.

Personally, my biggest concern is that there is no data proving they will have a measurable impact on climate change. It seems like a huge risk to take — sacrificing our ocean for an ineffective band aid.

The climate crisis is fueled by the burning of fossil fuels. Offshore wind turbines and other renewable energy sources are needed to significantly reduce our dependence on oil, methane, gasoline, diesel, propane, and coal.

Offshore wind comes with costs and will impact the environment, as do all forms of energy production. But the burning of fossil fuels is much more polluting and damaging.

The oceans were long ago industrialized by the exploration for and drilling of fossil fuels. There are thousands of oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico alone. Increasing the amount of renewable energy we produce will lessen the stress on marine environments.

Europe has been opposing these for decades as well. Speaking of which, countries like Sweden are ditching OSW (offshore wind) and investing further in nuclear energy. This is because they are not the solution to our climate crisis.

Utility-scale offshore wind facilities have been generating electricity for three decades in Europe.

Earlier this year the European Commission identified 12 offshore wind projects as projects of common interest. The commission wants to double cross-border power capacity in the European Union by 2030, by adding 87 gigawatts (GW) of offshore and onshore energy.

Last year North Sea country leaders pledged to install 120 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030, up from 34 GW currently.

Europe installed 3.8 GW of offshore wind energy in 2023.

While Sweden has announced plans to build the equivalent of two new conventional nuclear reactors by 2035, a January news story noted “Swedish offshore wind ‘goldrush’ shows no signs of slowing down.”

Where is the data to support that the turbines will improve global warming?

To mitigate the impacts of climate change, offshore wind energy is part of the renewables mix required to drastically slash our fossil fuel consumption.

How are we going to clean them up at the end of their short 15 year lifespan?

Decommissioning bonds, also known as reclamation bonds, are financial assurances that guarantee the proper reclamation and restoration of the natural world when a renewable energy facility reaches the end of its useful life.

Interestingly, there seems to be far less concern about what happens to power plants that burn coal, oil, or natural gas when they retire.

Research has shown that offshore wind turbines have an approximate lifespan of 20-25 years.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In my experience, power plants, whether nuclear, coal, oil and gas, wind or solar tend to operate well-past their "sell by." Power companies tend to run them for as long as they can to maximize their return on investment, often shutting down only when market changes cut into profits. They also try to postpone decommissioning costs as long as possible. I believe that most estimates on facility lifespans reflect the secret of success: "Under-promise and over-achieve."    - Will Collette

How much energy do the five BI wind turbines produce? That data has not been made available to the public.

The five-turbine, 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm generates enough energy to power 17,000 homes; 10% of the energy generated powers New Shoreham and the rest is delivered to the mainland.

How specifically is OSW “green” and “clean” energy? From destroying forests in South America in order to build them to shipping them here and installing them actually involves a very high carbon emission cost.

Renewable energy is much cleaner than burning fossil fuels, especially when increasingly more sun and wind power comes online. These indirect climate-changing emissions will continue to decrease as more and more cleaner energy is added to the power grid.

Forests are being destroyed in South America and elsewhere to build onshore wind projects — just like forests and open space are and have been destroyed to build power plants (Ocean State Power in Burrillville, for example).

The amount of environmental damage created by extracting, transporting, and processing fossil fuels is considerably higher than the impact of renewable energy development. 

Mountaintop removal mining for coal, fracking for natural gas, deep-sea drilling for oil and gas, and tar sands mining, plus all the toxic chemicals used in these processes and the toxic wastewater created, has caused extensive damage to the natural world and human health.

There’s also a high emissions cost to shipping construction materials and components and building fossil fuel power plants and their associated infrastructure.

Can we explore other options that are low or even zero carbon emissions?

We are and we have. Nuclear energy comes with its own disadvantages, from concerns about nuclear weapon proliferation to radioactive waste that contains highly poisonous chemicals that can be extremely toxic for tens of thousands of years.

Since the 1950s, a stockpile of 250,000 tons of radioactive nuclear waste has been accumulated and distributed across the world, with 90,000 metric tons stored in the United States alone.

Hydrogen energy, at least at the moment, is an unrealistic one-to-one replacement for fossil fuels because of how expensive and energy intensive it is to create.

About 96% of the hydrogen used today is gray. This type of hydrogen costs less, but its impact on the environment is severe, as it requires 22 pounds of carbon dioxide to create 2.2 pounds of gray hydrogen.

Hydrogen is also difficult to handle, and has a low ignition point, so it doesn’t need to get very hot to catch fire.

Fusion energy offers a potential long-term energy source that uses abundant fuel supplies and doesn’t produce greenhouse gases or long-lived radioactive waste. But a 2023 study highlighted the engineering and economic challenges of fusion energy.

What is the effect of EMFs from the cables that will be running through the ocean and through our communities? What sorts of problems can this cause on the health of marine species and on human life?

Marine scientists are and have studied this and they haven’t yet found significant cause for alarm. The same concerns and more could be said about the impact fossil fuel infrastructure has had and is having on marine and human life.

What about the impact of acoustic vibration on marine life and on human life? They are not too far offshore from us.

Offshore oil and gas development requires conducting geological and geophysical surveys to understand the location and extent of deposits and the geological formations around them.

This seafloor exploration includes seismic airgun surveys that can have acoustic impacts on marine species. Seismic testing involves blasting the seafloor with high-powered airguns every 10 seconds and measuring the echoes to map offshore oil and gas reserves.

In marine mammals, the blasts — which reach more than 250 decibels and be heard for miles — can cause hearing loss, disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding, and mask communications between individual whales and dolphins, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The blasts also reduce catch rates of commercial fish.

Also, there are countless polluting fossil fuel facilities significantly closer to millions of people. Of the 329.3 million people in the contiguous United States, 10% (33 million) live within 3 miles of one or more power plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The population living near power plants is comprised of 53% (17.5 million) people of color and 34% (11.2 million) low-wealth individuals. According to 2020 Census data, the overall U.S. population is comprised of 40% people of color and 30% low-income individuals.

For comparison, the Revolution Wind facility is about 17 miles southeast of the Point Judith shoreline.

Does ecoRI believe that these turbines will save the climate in fifteen years?

Ending the burning of fossil fuels is the top priority when it comes to mitigating the climate crisis. Offshore wind, here and elsewhere, is part of the energy mix needed to drastically curtail our use of fossil fuels.

Only 1/18 of the energy from these projects off of our coast is going to RI — the rest goes to NY, CT, and MA.

In 2022, Rhode Island generated 83% of its electricity from natural gas, the second-largest share of any state after Delaware, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

All of that methane comes from out of state, including from hydraulic fracturing in Ohio, which last year approved fracking for oil and gas in state parks and designated wildlife areas. It’s delivered to Rhode Island via natural gas infrastructure that includes more than 3 million miles of pipeline, according to the EIA.

Fracking, and horizontal drilling, are used to go after hard-to-reach pockets of methane and oil.

Hydraulic fracturing is linked to an array of health impacts, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and birth defects.

In 2006 a spill of nearly a million gallons of fracking wastewater into the Yellowstone River in North Dakota resulted in a mass die-off of fish and plants. Cleanup of that spill was still ongoing at the time of another spill in 2015 of nearly 3 million gallons of briny, saltwater waste that flowed to the Missouri River and contained chloride concentrations high enough to kill any wildlife that encountered it.

Every wind company installing the turbines is actually a fossil fuel company such as: Shell and BP (remember them?) Big Oil is Big Wind and they’ve funded Southern New England institutions with millions of dollars.

Many but not all offshore wind developers are part of the fossil fuel industry. While the greed of CEOs and industry profits and lies are disturbing, those employed by these corporations know how to build energy projects. Would you rather have journalists or animal control officers building our energy infrastructure?

Last year Shell reported a profit of $28 billion, down 30% from the previous year’s record, but it still allowed the corporation to increase its dividend by 4% and extend its share repurchases. BP reported a 2023 profit of $13.8 billion.

The vast majority of that wealth was acquired because of our relentless burning of fossil fuels.

ecoRI News is most certainly not one of the alleged (and nameless) southern New England institutions that have received millions from Big Wind or Big Oil.

Our electricity costs will go up — OSW companies admit that we should expect a major adverse impact on economics.

The climate crisis — i.e., the burning of fossil fuels — is having a “major adverse impact” on the economy, from health care costs to property and infrastructure damage. The recent flooding, again, of Houston is just one example.

BOEM advises that turbines alter temperature stratification of the ocean and impact ocean currents.

The burning of fossil fuels is already doing that and much more at a far larger scale.

Ninety percent of global warming is occurring in the ocean, causing the water’s internal heat to increase since modern record-keeping began in 1955, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Heat stored in the ocean causes its water to expand, which is responsible for one-third to one-half of global sea level rise, according to NASA. The past 10 years were the ocean’s warmest decade since at least the 1800s; 2023 was the ocean’s warmest recorded year.

Besides sea level rise, the effects of ocean warming include thermal expansion, coral bleaching, accelerated melting of the planet’s major ice sheets, intensified hurricanes, more frequent severe weather, and changes in ocean health and biochemistry.

And yes, they are killing whales. This can no longer be denied. I can share endless data with you if you’d like.

To prove offshore wind is killing marine mammals, the email included a link to a Robert Bryce video.

From October 2007 to February 2008, Bryce was a fellow at the Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit backed by fossil fuel interests and known for its role in advocating against tax subsidies for renewable energy and against the EPA’s proposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

The Institute for Energy Research also commissioned and paid for a bogus anti-wind energy study released in 2009 by a Danish think tank, according to DeSmog

The rebuked and withdrawn study falsely claimed Denmark exaggerates the amount of wind energy it produces, questioned whether wind energy reduces carbon emissions (it does), and asserted that the United States should choose coal over wind because it’s cheaper (it’s not when you count the public and environmental health costs associated with mining for and burning coal).

In April 2010 Bryce, an author and journalist, joined the Manhattan Institute as a senior fellow. The Manhattan Institute is a policy think tank that has received significant funding from both ExxonMobil and Koch Industries. It is known for obscuring science that supports human-made climate change.

Bryce has been unwilling to answer questions about the funding the Manhattan Institute receives from the fossil fuel industry.

Vessel strikes and entanglements with fishing gear are the leading causes of whale mortalities, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A cruise ship recently arrived at the Port of Brooklyn with a 44-foot-long corpse of an endangered sei whale sprawled across its bow.

As for offshore wind’s impact on whale deaths, NOAA hasn’t found one.

“We work with our partners to analyze and understand the causes of death when we are able, following the science and data,” according to the federal agency. “At this point, there is no scientific evidence that noise resulting from offshore wind site characterization surveys could potentially cause whale deaths. There are no known links between large whale deaths and ongoing offshore wind activities.”

I cannot imagine such an invasive industrialization of our oceans would not adversely impact the ecosystem in some way. Sacrificing our oceans is too high a risk without actual proof of environmental improvement.

The “invasive industrialization” of the world’s ocean began with freighters, cruise ships, oil and gas platforms, trawlers, fish processing vessels, marine diamond mining, deep-sea mining, megayachts, naval fleets, nuclear submarines, and military training exercises. They all have a significant impact on marine health.

Offshore wind development would help stop the further industrialization of the ocean by new fossil fuel infrastructure and lead the way to a slow process of decommissioning oil and gas rigs.

Reducing fossil fuel burning would have a huge impact on “environmental improvement.” Land-based renewable energy alone likely isn’t sufficient to provide global energy demand in a post-carbon world.

I hope as human beings, we can come up with better solutions.

Annual global energy consumption is estimated to be 580 million terajoules. One terajoule equals a million megawatt-hours. Global annual energy consumption corresponds to the amount of energy released from the Hiroshima nuclear bomb every four seconds. A Boeing 737 can cross the Atlantic Ocean on 1 terajoule.

Eighty-three percent of that annual energy comes from fossil fuels. Since 2000, global energy consumption has increased by about a third, and by 2040 it is projected to increase by 30% to 740 million terajoules.

The continued burning of that much fossil fuel will drastically alter life on this planet, including our own. It already is.

Renewable energy, including offshore wind, needs to become the dominant form of energy until something cleaner is developed. The continued burning of enormous amounts of fossil fuels can’t be an option.

Note: Hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists expect global temperatures to rise to at least 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit ) this century, blasting past internationally agreed targets and causing catastrophic consequences for humanity and the planet.

Frank Carini can be reached at His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.